Zanner v Zanner


One of the most disappointing things about law school is how much grey there is. I’d seen the lawyers on television and knew two things: they only wore black and white and they spoke with absolute certainty when defending their clients.

I’d assumed this certainty equated to there only being one answer to the legal problem. The lawyer who best argues that answer in court was the one who won. You had to be engaging and eloquent.

Given my tendency towards babble, I was uncertain about my ability to actually practice law. And yet, I still signed up. I think it was the concept of black and white that sucked me in. I’ve spent my life in the arts and humanities, fantasizing about having a fling with maths. I love the idea of there only being one answer to a problem. But given I recently had to use a calculator to work out what 11 + 12 equaled, maths and I were never going to get together.

My attempt to escape from ambiguity was short-lived, when upon arrival at law school I realised that law is not simply the application of a set of legal rules but, rather, the application of set of legal rules applied to people’s problems. And when you have people + problems you get ambiguity.

The best lawyer wasn’t the one who could sound good in court and say ‘I object’ in the most authoritative tone without pissing off the judge. The best lawyer was the one who could find cases to back up their argument and then argue their case well. There was one particular case, mentioned in a torts lecture, that had me intrigued: Zanner v Zanner.*

The first Zanner was a Mrs Zanner who’d sustained serious injuries after she was run over by a car. The second Zanner was Mrs Zanner’s son. He was eleven and had run over his mother by mistake while parking the family car in the carport. His mother sued him for negligence.

I know, I know. I thought the same kind of thing… what kind of mother sues her 11-year-old son who shouldn’t be in the driver’s seat to begin with? But trust me, that’s not what’s important here. Trust me.

I suspect that she needed to sue in order to get money from her insurance company in order to pay for her extensive medical bills. After being run over by her son. Who was 11 and shouldn’t have been driving anyway. Sorry, the facts are quite distracting.

The insurance company tried to argue that they weren’t liable to pay anything to Mrs Zanner because the kid was 11 and was a shit driver (on account of his lack of experience, not his history of running over his mother). The gist of their argument linked to duty of care – the idea that we have an obligation to look out for others. The boy was only 11 and it’s generally assumed that someone who’s 11 has no experience driving, which means he has no obligation to look out for others, even if he was driving. No obligation = no breach = no liability = insurer doesn’t have to pay any money.

But, as I’ve mentioned, law is all about the ability to apply legal rules to people’s problems. The other side argued that the son did have some experience – he’d driven his dad’s car into the carport previously and no one had been run over those times. The other reasoning was to break the task of driving down to the basics elements:

Foot on brake = no one gets run over.

Foot off brake = bad.

The Judge agreed that an 11-year-old could follow that logic and therefore, was, in part, negligent for his mother’s accident. If it makes you feel any better, Mrs Zanner was found to have contributed to the negligence by letting her 11-year-old son drive and by standing in front of the car as he drove it into he carport.

But, like I said, the fact that his mother sued him is not what’s important here. As the lecturer was outlining the case and why it was important to our studies, the only thing I could think about was Mrs Zanner’s relationship with her son after she sued him. And whether that meant there were greater implications for parenting overall?

I don’t have kids but I was one. And I have friends who have kids. I know about The Count.

It’s a tried and tested threat for getting kids to do what you want them to.

Parent: Go clean your room please.

Child: No, I don’t want to.

Parent: Now, please.

Child: No.

Parent: Now. You have until three. One…. Two….

Child pauses, not quite ready to give in yet and then stomps off to their room, knowing it’s futile to rebel against The Count.

In terms of a threat, it’s perfect. Most kids don’t know what comes if their parent reaches the number three. In fact, I imagine there are quite a few parents who haven’t thought that one through either. It’s also stood the test of time – with four children, my parents became very proficient at The Count.

From what I’ve heard, the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus are the most effective tools available to a parent. But they’re only available two times a year and for a few weeks at a time. Consider it a parenting bonus (it’s a tough gig; they need all the bonuses they can get).

But it did make me wonder… What if Mrs Zanner’s decision to sue her son did more than just clarify a legal principle? What if Mrs Zanner’s decision to sue her son opened up a whole other world to parents? A world of new threats?

Parent: Go clean your room please.

Child: No, I don’t want to.

Parent: Now please.

Child: No.

Parent: Now. Or I’ll sue you.

Child pauses, not quite ready to give in yet…

Parent: Now. Or I’ll sue you. Again.

Child stomps off to their room, knowing it’s futile to rebel against The Law.

My attention was diverted as the lecturer started to talk excitedly about the ‘But For’ test. It wasn’t really exciting at all; she’s just overly enamored with the world of torts. I couldn’t judge. It was probably the same way I’m smitten by the idea of a life with maths; or any hard science for that matter. Which reminded me of physics and Newton’s Third Law:

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Throwing a new threat into the world of parenting could have implications, serious implications that I’d yet to consider.

Parent: Go clean your room please.

Child: No, I don’t want to.

Parent: Now please.

Child: No.

Parent: Now. Or I’ll sue you.

Child pauses, not quite ready to give in yet, then turns and walks to his mother’s handbag.

Parent: Now. Or I’ll sue you. Again.

Child reaches into his mother’s handbag and pulls out her car keys.

Child. Careful Mother. Or I’ll run over you. Again.

Scrap that, stick with The Count.


*(the ‘v’ is pronounced as ‘and’ not ‘versus’)

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